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teaser Breathless (1961)

Original French title: A Bout De Souffle

When Breathless premiered in America in 1961, film critic Penelope Gilliatt wrote that "Jean-Luc Godard makes a film as though no one had ever made one before." Based on an idea by Francois Truffaut and dedicated to Monogram Pictures (the king of B-movie studios), the film's narrative was probably the most conventional Godard was ever to use. But it was the style and attitude of the film that departed radically from what had gone before and immediately established Godard as a leading spokesman of the French New Wave.

Inspired by Godard's love for American film noir thrillers and B-movies, Breathless is about a petty thief named Michel who idolizes Humphrey Bogart. Acting out his life as if he were a character in a gangster film, Michel steals a car, kills a policeman in pursuit, and eventually takes refuge with an American student who casually betrays him.

With a working budget of only $90,000, Godard couldn't afford to make a polished studio film and had no intentions of doing so. Shot entirely on location in the streets, cafes, and hotel rooms of Paris, Breathless was made in complete defiance of mainstream filmmaking techniques. Moving camera shots were hand-held and tracking was accomplished by seating the cameraman in a wheelchair. Additional lighting and the use of tripods, cranes, dollies, and rails were avoided wherever possible. There were no transitions between scenes or matching shots, and jump cuts were used often as a stylistic device to convey a chaotic atmosphere.

A seminal film of the '60s, Breathless showed aspiring filmmakers what novelists have always known: that the manner in which a story is told can be more important than the story itself.

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Georges de Beauregard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard (based on an idea by Francois Truffaut)
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Editor: Cecile Decugis, Lila Herman
Music: Martial Solal
Production Design: Claude Chabrol
Principal Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Poiccard), Jean Seberg (Patricia Franchini), Daniel Boulanger (Police Inspector), Jean-Pierre Melville (Parvulesco).
In French with English subtitles

by Jeff Stafford

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teaser Breathless (1961)

Breathless (1960) was the first feature directed by Jean-Luc Godard, and along with The 400 Blows (1959) by his friend Franois Truffaut, it skyrocketed the young filmmakers to international fame and signaled the emergence of the French New Wave. Of the two instant classics, Breathless is easily the more radical, swinging from kinetic action - a car theft, a murder - to leisurely scenes of hanging out, strolling down the boulevard, and chatting about nothing in particular. What unifies the film is Godard's hyperactive style, using abrupt jump cuts and a restless, roaming camera to inject the homes, shops, sidewalks, and streets of Paris with nonstop cinematic energy. The story is equally offbeat, moving at an edgy yet unhurried pace until a last-minute twist brings the movie and its main character to a sudden end.

Beginning his career-long habit of working without a screenplay, Godard and his cast improvised Breathless from a brief story outline by Truffaut, telling the story of a gangster and his girl. The former is Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in the performance that defined his career. The latter is Patricia, played by Jean Seberg in the performance that rescued her from oblivion after the box-office nosedives of two Hollywood pictures that tried and failed to make her a star - Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Michel is a small-time thug who steals a car, goes for a joy ride in the countryside, and kills a policeman who chases him. Patricia is an American student who sells newspapers on the Champs-lyses, goes to classes at the Sorbonne, and spends her spare time with Michel, who can't figure out whether she loves him or not.

Michel spends most of the movie dodging a police dragnet and hunting for a friend who owes him money so he can collect and get out of the country, hopefully with Patricia at his side. But his plans crash and burn when Patricia walks into a caf, picks up a phone, and betrays him to the police for no apparent reason. Soon afterward they gun him down in the street outside the apartment where he's been hiding, and his final run for freedom seems almost perfunctory - by now he's fed up, played out, "at the end of breath," to translate the film's French title, bout de souffle. Mumbling about how "disgusting" the situation is, he dies while Patricia watches with no sign of emotion. Then she gives a last look directly to Godard's camera and turns away, leaving us to wonder if love and loyalty have simply eluded this particular couple or have become irrelevant illusions, unsuited to our existentially troubled times.

Before he started making films, Godard was among the young French critics who developed the auteur theory during the 1950s, calling for directors to "write" with their cameras as personally as if they were penning novels, poems, or letters to friends. This explains the improvised events and spontaneous moods of Breathless, while its vivid realism - the film is as much a documentary about Paris as a thriller and a romance - reflects Godard's admiration for the Italian neorealist filmmakers of the late 40's and early 50's, who traded studio artificiality and movie-star glamour for naturalistic stories in authentic settings. Godard also loved Hollywood movies, and many of his 1960s pictures are clever variations on tried-and-true commercial genres: Breathless is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, a minor American studio, and it's a hardboiled gangster film just as A Woman Is a Woman (1961) is a musical, Les Carabiniers (1963) is a war picture, Alphaville (1965) is a science-fiction yarn, and Week End (1967) is a film noir in color. The spur-of-the-moment construction of Breathless allowed Godard to inject film-savvy jokes and allusions as well - a famous novelist is played by his fellow director Jean-Pierre Melville, for instance, and Michel idolizes Humphrey Bogart, the movie gangster par excellence. Godard even does an Alfred Hitchcock-type cameo as a passing stranger who helps the police stay on Michel's trail.

Godard also loved style for its own sake, which is why he places editing, camera movement, and occasionally music at the center of attention, no less important than the movie's characters and events. When shooting Breathless he sometimes propelled his brilliant young cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, through the picture's real-life locations in a wheelchair, or hid him in a mail cart so he could shoot on streets and sidewalks without attracting attention; at other times they did their filming openly, and if you watch carefully you'll see passers-by gawking at the camera. The lighting of interiors was innovative too - rejecting the sophisticated three-point system favored by studios, Coutard filled large areas with relatively even illumination, allowing the actors to move freely instead of hitting predetermined marks. The editing process was equally instinctive, as Godard spliced dissimilar shots together and yanked out nonessential frames, ranking correctness and convention far below the off-the-cuff impulses of the moment, as do the freewheeling characters themselves. In his most daringly spontaneous maneuver, Godard chose to shoot the film without sound so he could call out dialogue to the actors while the camera rolled, recording their voices later in a studio dubbing room.

Godard's lack of regard for the standard rules of movie storytelling angered tradition-minded critics and filmmakers wherever Breathless was shown. But others recognized the far-reaching potential of his highly original techniques, and American directors as different as Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma were influenced by his movies and ideas when they developed their own styles in the 1960s. Godard never had another hit as big as Breathless - or another hit of any size - and it's still his most frequently watched film. His own attitude toward it appears to be a sort of cautious pride: "Although I felt ashamed of it at one time," he said in 1962, "I do like Breathless very much, but now I see where it belongs - along with Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was Scarface." This is a cryptic and amusing comment, like many of Godard's remarks, but there's nothing mysterious about the film's enduring appeal. It hit the screen like a burst of fresh air in 1960 and has left moviegoers breathless ever since.

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: Georges de Beauregard
Writer: Jean-Luc Godard, from a story by Franois Truffaut
Cinematographer: Raoul Coutard
Film Editing: Ccile Decugis, Lila Herman
Music: Martial Solal
With: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Michel Poiccard), Jean Seberg (Patricia Franchini), Daniel Boulanger (Police Inspector Vital), Jean-Pierre Melville (Parvulesco), Henri-Jacques Huet (Antonio Berrutti), Van Doude (himself), Claude Mansard (Claudius Mansard), Jean-Luc Godard (informer), Richard Balducci (Tolmatchoff), Roger Hanin (Cal Zombach), Jean-Louis Richard (journalist).

by David Sterritt

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